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The Piracy Article: Landlubber’s Version

It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day, so it seems only fitting that we take a look at the issue of piracy and how it relates to RPGs. Now, I’m usually a very tolerant and accepting gnome, just ask any StarWars fan, so it’s no surprise that I have a very liberal attitude about piracy.

Piracy… is wrong.

Yeah, you can argue if you like, but unless you belong to some esoteric school of philosophy that believes in freedom of information, or might makes right, you don’t really have a leg to stand on in a logical discussion of the facts of piracy. And even then, you have to justify your beliefs so as to explain away the inalienable right of those who produce a good or service to provide it to others at any terms they see fit, and that’s the doozy.

Now, I’m not a complete hardass on this one. Piracy is one of those deals where sometimes people look the other way for good reason. If you want to be technical, yes downloading a PDF of an RPG that’s been out of print for the past decade is wrong, but I don’t think anyone out there will crucify you for it. Same goes for taking a preview peak or any number of reasons to pirate. They’re reasonable, they’re just still wrong, so it’s up to you where you stand on when it’s OK to pirate. Just remember that no matter what YOU decide is reasonable, the law may not agree with you.

Let’s take a quick look at how we got in this mess to begin with. How did piracy get to be so ubiquitous, and why are companies completely bunging up dealing with piracy? Piracy is as old as media itself. Hell, monks spent their entire lives in the dark ages transcribing books, and that’s technically piracy. But piracy as we know it today started as soon as the floppy drive came into existence for the home PC. (Well, OK. portable storage media. There were older kinds than floppies.) Back in the hoary days of yesteryear, PC owners would have swap parties, bringing pirated copies of their disks in plastic baggies and traded for whatever anyone else had.  You could trade a copy of an operating system for the newest game, or a word processor for a programming language. Piracy on this scale wasn’t a huge deal, at least we didn’t think it was back then. If you didn’t know someone who had what you needed, or you needed an “official” copy for whatever reason (the manual was a good reason back then) you still bought the software.

In the days of the bulletin board services (think a cross between the Internet and a home network: just two PCs talking remotely over the phone) the scope of the people you could reach and the number of programs you could get were suddenly exponentially bigger. Of course, this meant that people were now monitoring piracy, and most sysops (the guy who owned the computer you were dialed into) wouldn’t let people exchange pirated software over their systems. BUT, there were also BBSes JUST for pirated software too. Then came the Internet, and availability made another exponential leap. As more and more people got online, and speeds got faster and faster, getting pirated information and programs became easier and easier. Today, some companies estimate that as much as 90% of the people using their software are using pirated versions.

Pirated software is one thing, but the piracy we’re primarily interested in as gamers, piracy of RPG documents, has  made the same progression. With the advent of the omnipresent PDF format, pirated documents are fast and easy to get and usable by everyone. Sites have even come into existence where with a single click you can download entire libraries of books. If we assume the same rate of piracy among RPG books that software companies report, the impact on the RPG industry is undeniable. The greater the rate of pirated books, the less money RPG companies recoup for their efforts, and the less incentive there is to produce RPG resources. Less incentive means less companies producing, means less variety and volume for all of us. Granted, there will always be some market, and the biggest companies will most likely survive, but the worse piracy gets, the tighter that market will get.

 Take, as an excellent example of the impact piracy has on the industry, the leak of the 4E DnD pdfs just days before their store release. Granted, WotC riled a lot of feathers by pulling back all copies of their PDFs from online stores and moving to a strictly supscription based system, but isn’t that a logical response to the blaring evidence of the insecurity and inevitability of piracy of PDFs? If every gamer in the world hadn’t had ready access to the 4E books days before they hit shelves, would that decision have been made differently? While we’ll never know, it’s pretty easy to see the connection between the two events.

And what about media companies? Why have they been so slow dealing with the issues raised by piracy? To get the answer on this one, we need to take a quick look at economics. Don’t worry. I’ll wake you when we finish. To start, we need to understand a few terms for different kinds of goods.

Private Goods are goods that are limited in supply, and that supply is easy to regulate. Think of a car. When you buy a car, that’s one less car for everyone else. And if someone doesn’t want you to have their car, they just don’t sell it to you. Private goods are good money makers because of the easy regulation. If you want to charge $20,000 for your new car model, you can. If you want to charge $40,000 you can, and no one can get one unless you sell it to them.

Club Goods are goods that are unlimited in supply, but that unlimited supply is easy to regulate. Think of a theater version of a movie. The movie studio makes one movie once, then sells it to every movie theater ever. If you want to see it, you have to pay to get in the door. Club goods are even BETTER money makers because of the unlimited supply and the easy regulation. The cost of producing a movie per customer is only cents, but they can charge whatever they choose to and no one can see it unless they pay.

Public Goods are goods with unlimited supply, and no control over who uses that supply. Think of a dam to keep out floodwater. Everyone in town gets protection from the floods, but there’s no realistic way to NOT protect Jones, even though he hasn’t paid his taxes in the past ten years. Public goods are shitty money makers because not only can anyone take advantage of them that wants to, but everyone can get as much as they want. In fact, most instances of items that are public goods are provided to the public via government programs because there’s no incentive for a private institution to produce them.

Now, back in the day, media used to be somewhere between a private or club good, depending on how they were distributed. Books, for example, were generally considered a private good, while movies and music were closer to club goods. This was great for producers of these media types, because club goods especially are excellent money makers. But what happens as media is reduced to electronic files and put on the Internet? It becomes a public good. It no longer has any limit to supply (save bandwidth limits) and no reasonable method of control. Producers have been fighting for a long time to retain their control and keep media in the realm of club goods, and continue to do so, but given the rate of piracy and the failure of any kind of DRM, that’s a loosing battle. So, it’s inevitable that media will eventually be a public good.

Economics class is over. You can wake up now.

That’s easy to fix right? All businesses have to do is move from their old business model that works on private and club goods, to a business model that works with public goods, right? Maybe, but so far, the only major functional system for the distribution of public goods is using taxation to buy public goods for consumers and since that’s not going to work any time soon, new business models based around public goods have to be developed. And they are being developed, but it’s going slowly. This is new ground for the business world.

So what can we as consumers do to help? As consumers, we can identify companies that are using new business models that work with public goods and choose to support those models. Here’s a few models that have cropped up recently that might be worth looking at:

Open Gaming Licence Model: Let’s work on the assumption that the core books are the most often pirated books in a line. They’re the most often bought, so that assumption makes sense. If that’s the case, an OGL model helps eliminate the biggest threat of piracy by making the core books of a system free and selling the expansions, which makes it a good model to work with, if not perfect.

Subscription Model: DnD Insider anyone? By taking a page from MMOs, WotC is taking steps in the right direction to deal with the new nature of media. Of course, they’re pissing off as many people by pulling PDFs as they’re exciting by moving in the right direction, so maybe very cautious optimism is the order of the day here.

Free PDF Model: It’s hard to pirate something free. A lot of companies are providing their products freely and then asking for donations from those who use and appreciate their work, especially smaller companies or smaller products.

Ransom Model: Pioneered in 2004 by Greg Stolze and Daniel Solis for their game Meatbot Massacre, the ransom model works like this: You toss out a paypalaccount, a deadline, an amount, and an abstract. If you reach the amount by the deadline, you finish the product and release it free for everyone. Buying into the ransom model is like buying a lottery ticket where either no one or everyone wins. There have been several sucessful RPG ransoms, and some other products, like webcomics operate with a variant of this model. It’s definately one to watch for the future.

Patronage Model:Wolfgang Baur is doing great things with his patronage model. You basicly buy a share of a project and then get to guide it during design. I don’t have any direct experience with this one, but I do have a friend who tried it out and can’t say enough about how cool it is. While a patronage model may be more pricey than some alternatives, the quality of work you get out of one (at least the existing example) is phenominal.

If any of those sound like something you’d like to be the model for the future of the gaming industry, find yourself a company experimenting with that model and help them define the future with your gaming budget. One thing piracy will never change is that the future of business is dictated by the flow of money, so every dollar you spend helps forge the business model of tomorrow. Spend wisely.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights an ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Piracy Article: Landlubber’s Version"

#1 Comment By Tommi On September 19, 2009 @ 3:41 am

First, that something is illegal does not make it wrong.

Second, people have a right to sell products as they wish (and it is clearly vital for modern society that they can do it), but people do not have an inalienable right to decide what I can do with something I have bought. I can buy a car and then give it away or sell it or whatever. I can do the same with a physical book. Why not with an electronic one?

The answer, as is given today, is that the producers of certain products have an inherent monopoly in distributing those products (or selling that right to someone else). This is supported by claims that the monopoly increases the quantity or quality of inventions and creative works by adding incentives to inventors and creative people.

There is much evidence against this stance, and little to support it (that I know of).

How did we get into this mess, then? Due to certain people and large businesses who want to limit competition and retain their monopoly in selling a given product. The problems are those that any monopoly creates, plus there is the issue of it being impossible to prevent online piracy without removing all online privacy, which is a very steep price to pay.

So what can we as people do? Support alternative business models, as written above in the article, and get into politics and change the laws so that they become functional again.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 19, 2009 @ 5:44 am

I agree that illegal does not always equal wrong. The two are different concepts. Illegal is meant to protect the greatest number of individual rights as can be done, which means some rights must be neglected. Wrong is concerned with a theoretical ideal, and thus is often unenforcable and sometimes conflicts with itself (ie: multiple people should all have mutually exclusive rights).

I also agree that what you do with a product you bought should, in theory, be up to you. HOWEVER, in cases where that right impinges on the rights of another, such as peer to peer distribution, it must be considered wrong. If we were discussing the rightness of you or I giving our electronic copy of a PDF to someone else, then deleting our own copy, that would be one circumstance, but our purchase of one copy of a PDF file in no way gives us the right to mass produce it, in the same way as us purchasing a book in no way gives us the right to mass produce it.

Of course, to say that the producer of an electronic file has the right to sell his file in any way he chooses, and that WE don’t have the right to mass produce and distribute that file doesn’t mean that it is right for producers to charge abusive monopolistic rates for their goods, which is the primary advantage of the club good and is what the very insiteful link you posted largely discusses.

Anyway, I’m going to bow out of further philosophy of piracy discussion. It’s a very interesting issue, and we could debate all day, (and I could probably get stomped quite a bit) but I’m more interested in the alternative business models for the purposes of this article

You’re 100% right that politics is another way to influence this issue. I’ll offer that starting your own business and developing your own business model to profit off of public goods is another. Those are more macro level answers, but if anyone is up to the task, go for it! We should see more openly gamer politicians and CEOs.

#3 Pingback By Talk like a Pirate Day – Thistle & Shrub Studios On September 19, 2009 @ 7:21 am

[…] of that that. What I really wanted to do was link over to Gnome Stew and their very good article on piracy. […]

#4 Comment By giftedmunchkin On September 19, 2009 @ 9:05 am

I just want to briefly point out that the subscription model is far from perfect when what you’re subscribing to is still a digital product. It works with MMOs because you’re purchasing an experience, which is not something easily redistributed. But with D&D Insider, a quick search will show you that the subscription hardly protects Wizards of the Coast from piracy.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On September 19, 2009 @ 9:12 am

This is an awesome and in-depth article Matthew! I’m in full agreement that media piracy of other’s property is a bad thing. There are sometimes reasons that make it more acceptable, but not fully acceptable. The unfortunate reaction to the new technologies, which make it easier to copy and distribute materials, is a draconian lock down on the technologies and a failure to embrace new distribution models. I know of TONS of bands that share their albums for free, or use P2P and free samples to build their base. I’ve got a few albums from these bands for free, I’ve seen them in concert because I love their music, and I always buy a t-shirt or something because I love the band and want to support them. If I didn’t find out about their music, then I wouldn’t have become a rabid fan. It’s not the technology, it’s the people who misuse it.

I’m not a prude by any means. I’ve got a few pirated movies or series that are out of print and unavailable . I’ve got a collection of old PDFs for out of print RPG books. I’ve also got a lot of music that came from CDs I own that I’ve ripped to my computer. These have all been called piracy. The thing I don’t have is materials that I’ve gotten just because I don’t want to pay for them.

Since the RPG industry is made up of so many fragile companies that relay on meager sales to stay in business, I like to purchase things and keep these companies afloat. Like small bands, and like you mentioned in the article, they are turning to alternate business models, which is awesome. People are realizing that there are multiple new means of distributing their materials and making a profit and that the new technologies aren’t inherently bad. While copying and distributing a PDF isn’t taking money out of a publisher’s pocket, it is making an impact as a possible lost sale.

Excellent Article!

#6 Comment By deadlytoque On September 19, 2009 @ 11:14 am

Another method, and one that probably isn’t realistic for large companies like WotC, is to just build loyalty. If your customers are loyal, then they won’t want to pirate from you. I have purchased a few games online where I’ve received both print and pdf — or just pdf — versions of the game, and though I could easily distribute those pdfs, I don’t, because I know the designers, or at least know they aren’t making a mint on the sales of their games. I also would never have downloaded a free version of those products, for the same reasons.

I’m very keen on the development and large-scale application of the Ransom Model for web-based distribution, because it does seem to counteract any standard claims of piracy. Of course, the problem with the RM is that you need to be an established designer FIRST, or at the very least be amazing at drumming up buzz for your product.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 19, 2009 @ 11:37 am

This is a solid article, Matthew. We gamers should take a moment and consider that our actions may have consequences that we don’t necessarily want.

“Wrong” is subjective; we each have a different definition of it. Piracy may be wrong.

“Illegal” is pretty well established. Yes, it may be a moving target in some cases, but it doesn’t move terribly fast. Piracy is illegal.

Each gamer (heck, each person) has to select their own level of comfort with piracy, and be prepared to take the full consequences of their actions. Don’t blame capitalism, society, or copyright laws for the consequences of your actions.

#8 Comment By oboreruhito On September 19, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

“Free PDF Model: It’s hard to pirate something free. A lot of companies are providing their products freely and then asking for donations from those who use and appreciate their work, especially smaller companies or smaller products.”

I’m guessing Eclipse Phase is a derivative of this – selling the PDF and the book, but also hosting the “pirate” torrent and licensing the whole thing under Creative Commons.

#9 Comment By boredinbc On September 19, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

I am still a little conflicted on the whole piracy issue, while I do believe in the internet as a source of free and forthright information, I also think that all publishers and developers have an inherent right to market, sell and profit from the creation of a quality product.

What concerns me mostly with online sales is the heavily rights managed products that are being produced. I believe in the right of first sale – having purchased this product I should be able sell, trade, or give it away as I see fit. I understand that with the proliferation of electronic copies and how easily they are reproduced some system of control is needed but its clear the distribution model hasn’t matured enough to address this issue fairly.

Ill freely admit to downloading copies of games prior to purchase to asses my desire to buy, and I always buy the games/products I play with – that doesnt make it legal or “right”, but I can honestly say I buy more now, being able to asses my satisfaction with a product more thoroughly then If I was browsing the pages in a book store. Also I “pirate” PDF copies of anything I do own and use, print them landscape, 2 up and double sided so I have a rough copy I can make notes on and mark up. Some publishers give you the rights to make copies for personal use, which is fair, some don’t.
This in many ways doubles the value I received for this book, making it more useful.

The issue wont go away overnight, and the internet and “piracy” is here to stay. Businesses will need to adapt, hopefully they will see the correlation between customer satisfaction and the bottom line while drafting policies and banging on their lawyers doors…

#10 Comment By boredinbc On September 19, 2009 @ 1:29 pm


This is unofficially the way that many game developers used to model their business, fansites, homebrew, and developmental community were encouraged and sometimes actively fostered.

I am very happy to see that someone has picked up the torch…

Also thanks for the name – the game looks like a good read.

#11 Comment By cooperflood On September 20, 2009 @ 1:04 am

Here’s a link to a slightly different opinion by Eric Flint from 2000, (aimed at the fiction market not RPG’s, but still pertinent). I particularly like how he backed up his opinions with action. Basically he says that most people would actually prefer to purchase a product rather than steal it and that buy providing some of his books for free he actually generates more sales. http://www.baen.com/library/

To me the recent Paizo’s marketing of Pathfinder was very similar to Flint’s model. They provided the beta version for free and those that liked it went on to buy PDFs or Hardcovers of the final product (And many other products). My guess is that they gained far more sales by providing “free material” than they lost.

#12 Comment By mrtopp On September 20, 2009 @ 2:18 am

I have two issues with the argument as a whole. The first is the following:

“you have to justify your beliefs so as to explain away the inalienable right of those who produce a good or service to provide it to others at any terms they see fit”

You call it a doozy, and you’re not wrong. However, that is not the current state of affairs for many industries — particularly the music industry, which historically has been the primary target of piracy thanks to the broad market and convenient digital formats available.

In the music industry, the huge expense of recording music, transferring it to physical media and distributing it to stores made recording labels the dominate player in the music industry. If you view the goods as being that physical media — the records, tapes and CDs — then the record company is the producer of the goods. If you see the music as the goods, then it is not.

When it comes to an MP3, that record label is certainly not the producer of the goods. The musicians who create the music are. Because they are used to their position of power, and their traditional stranglehold over the production of the media allowed them to force musicians to sign away the rights to their music, the record companies are fighting a war against piracy that many of the content creators do not want to see fought. They still believe that the musicians work for them, though we are not far from the day in which it is the other way around (if the labels manage to continue to exist in their present form at all).

This is not to say you’re wrong, but to point out that the real situation is much more complex than your statement makes it out to be. Additionally, the situation varies greatly from industry to industry, despite the one-size-fits-all approaches to piracy which are generally seen. For instance, my above argument would not seem to hold at all for the movie industry. Writing roleplaying games is an entirely different kettle of fish as well.

Secondly, I am uncertain on your insistence that downloading the PDF of a RPG that has been out of print for 10 years is wrong.

While it may technically be illegal, before the Internet allowed for content to be sold absent a medium, we did not pay for content. We paid for the material goods.

We bought CDs, not music. DVDs, not movies. And so on.

The cost of a book or CD did not depend on the quality of the material within, but the cost to produce, ship and shelve the physical material. The content was free.

This is why we are free to buy second-hand books. The first purchaser has (presumably) already read them. In a content-based model, they should not be able to sell it (or lend it) to a second person who ALSO gets to read the book without further compensation to the creator of the work. And if it is sold second-hand, why is the price reduced?

If a work was published and printed under these assumptions, and there are no future sales are not going to be undermined by the free PDF, it is hard to see the wrong in it. The publisher never expected to profit from the content, and they are not harmed by the download.

#13 Comment By Bookkeeper On September 20, 2009 @ 5:56 am

An excellent article on a problem that not only threatens game companies, but the FLGS that supports them.

Right of First Sale cannot work the same for electronic media as it does for other media – the ability to mass produce copies breaks the system. If I share a copy of a book with a friend, I haven’t disrupted the producer’s ability to sell. If I make 300 copies of said book and hand them out, I’ve gravely disrupted said ability.

Piracy, in essence, punishes companies for widening their methods of distribution. Taken to its logical extreme, this can produce one of three results:

1) The company realizes the hit it is taking, decides it is costing more than it is worth, and digital distro stops.

2) The company decides the hit is worth the exposure but the lost revenue reduces the number of products they would otherwise have produced.

3) The company doesn’t realize how much revenue is lost, plans go awry, and gamers lose that company altogether.

#14 Comment By Alnakar On September 21, 2009 @ 10:57 am

Excellent article. I’m always glad to see people (especially people on the internet, which is typically a forum for the advocation of piracy) taking a moment to reflect on the implications of piracy. I think most people are too quick to overlook the fact that money from consumers is what drives these industries, and if the only time you’ll pay for something as a consumer is when you have absolutely no alternative, it has negative consequences for the industry.

The large companies (WotC) can afford to implement the measures that will reduce the impact of piracy, and their products will be sufficiently wide-spread that the percentage of people who do pay for these products will cover the cost of producing them. If we’re not conscientious of the impact that our money has on the industry, we’ll end up shooting ourselves in the gnomish foot.

I’m definitely glad to hear of the success that some people have had so far in implementing these new business models.

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 21, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

I am against piracy, because partaking in it actually strengthens the case for things like DRM and encourages companies like WotC not to produce PDFs. And while I often hear the “Big companies are evil and should not have such tight control over materials that I purchased!” argument, I rarely hear anyone address the “I pirated from a small company that is struggling to make ends meet and they should go out of business for trying to control how their product is distributed!” reality that often occurs.

Piracy is wrong. Plain and simple. Yes, monopolies and ridiculous restraints on what you can do with media that you purchased are wrong too, but that doesn’t change the fact that piracy means you are stealing something that is not yours. That is why it is called piracy and not normalcy. Normalcy is “I paid others for the goods and services that they provided and that I want.” Piracy is “I steal what I want.”

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Especially since all of the materials that are normally pirated are for entertainment purposes and not necessary for survival. Boycotting anything produced by major studios and record labels, or big RPG companies, would have a much bigger impact than stealing their works. They’ll lower their prices in response to a boycott, and they’ll change their business strategies too. Against piracy they will just prosecute the offenders.

Excellent article! Great job!

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 21, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

Here’s something timely: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/experienced-points/6519-Building-a-Better-Kind-of-DRM

Batman: Arkham Asylum has a programmed bug that, in the cracked game, prevents Batman from doing the “jump-glide” maneuver, which is necessary to complete the game. The regular game works properly.

Now, could someone do this in PDF, perhaps with a few very incorrect stat-blocks? Or maybe a few pages of Lorem Ipsum? I dunno, but it’s worth looking into…

#17 Comment By Rhamphoryncus On September 24, 2009 @ 11:46 am

You lost me at “inalienable right”. It’s *my* inalienable right to share, express, and communicate thoughts, ideas, and art. Copyright is just a mechanism to support the creation of some of that.

And I do believe in supporting the creation of art. Unfortunately, copyright interferes far more than it needs to for that. So much so that violating it has become the norm, reducing any support of the law to lip service. If I do follow it, it’s because of a personal decision, or the threat of someone with a gun.

Copyright is well intentioned but amoral. As a publisher, you have to work within the law, but don’t expect me to sit at the back of the bus.

Exploring alternate business models is critical. Stop treating everything people will do anyway as amoral and they might start caring again about obeying the law.

#18 Comment By saoili On September 30, 2009 @ 10:48 am

Sorry for joining in order to disagree, but I felt the need to make a particular point.

I don’t agree with your statement that “The greater the rate of pirated books, the less money RPG companies recoup for their efforts”. It assumes that everyone will have heard of the RPG anyway and that no one will ever buy a copy if they have access to a pirated copy. Neither of these things are true. Most of the people I know that pirate things online do so to test if they like them, if they do (and when they can afford to) they will buy them.

#19 Pingback By Johnny’s Five – Five Quick Tips For A Pirate Themed Game | John Arcadian On March 20, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

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